Lara Alshawawreh

“Edinburgh is my second home…part of my heart was left there!”

I’m originally from Jordan, and my undergraduate degree was in architectural engineering. I won a scholarship for a foreign university Masters and a PhD; I found the Architectural Technology & Building Performance Masters course at Edinburgh Napier and was accepted. It was a big transition and I relied heavily on my tutors to bridge that gap, even coming to them out of hours, but they were always encouraging and helpful.

When it came to choosing a PhD, I wanted to take my time to get the topic right. For me, architecture isn’t about serving the privileged part of society; building banks, offices, luxury houses. I had worked for several NGOs and wanted to serve those causes. Jordan is home to two of the biggest refugee camps in the Middle East, so I was becoming interested in the housing provided for transient populations. Before I had really decided to stay at Edinburgh Napier, I met Professor Sean Smith as a potential PhD supervisor. He came to that first meeting fully prepared – he had found out what I was interested in and started talking about future plans. That made me ‘touch the dream’ – suddenly it became more real. He believed in my potential from the start – I saw myself reflected in his eyes – and that gave me confidence.

Wholehearted support

A PhD is the moment when you really put out to the world what you’re about. It has to be right; at the end of the day this will be attached to you forever. Therefore, decisions have to be yours, but wholehearted support is essential. Part of a PhD is the journey; we had some plans, we made some U-turns, but whenever I had some crazy ideas, Sean was very encouraging. For example, I was going home for a holiday when I suddenly realised it was a great opportunity to conduct field work in the refugee camps – but I had only a week to organise everything! I called Sean with this change of focus, and he didn’t try to stop me, or say it would take too long, he just fully supported me. It turned out to be my favourite part of the PhD.

Current refugee shelters aren’t designed in collaboration with the refugees themselves: it’s all temporary, ‘one size fits all’ accommodation. During my PhD, I visited the Zaatari and Azraq camps for Syrian refugees in Jordan to set up focus groups discussions and do observatory tours. In another set of camps’ visits, I did participatory design sessions with groups of men, women and children. I gave them cardboard kits, for modelling, and asked them to design their ideal shelter. Based on my field work and my analysis for the existing literature, I devised a set of criteria for designing suitable post-disaster shelters for refugees in the Middle East, and in addition I suggested a possible design structure.

I needed to return to Jordan because it is my home and also that was a condition of my scholarship. However, Edinburgh will always be my second home. I often say part of my heart was left there! I was very lucky to study in Edinburgh. And as a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, I can honestly say never had any bad experiences at all, whether in the office or university, or with friends and people outside. People were always very welcoming and that is what really made my experience outstanding.